An interview with Mercedes Arrastia-Tuason, Philippine ambassador to the Holy See.
This fall has been eventful for the Philippine embassy to the Holy See. In October, Benedict XVI canonized Blessed Pedro Calungsod, the second Blessed of the biggest Catholic country of Asia. Then, on November 24 at the consistory, held in the Vatican, the Pope created Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, who heads the archdiocese of Manila in the Philippines, as one of the new cardinals. We decided to meet with Mercedes Arrastia-Tuason, Philippine ambassador to the Holy See, to learn more about this Asian country which has caught the attention of the universal Church due to these two major events.
A numerous official delegation arrived from the Philippines for the canonization of Blessed Pedro Calungsod, along with many thousands of faithful. What did this event mean for your country?
Ambassador Mercedes Arrastia-Tuason: The canonization of Blessed Pedro is indeed a very historic and momentous occasion for the Philippines, after almost 500 years of Christianity. We are very proud and deeply honored as a country and as a people. It is only fitting that the canonization take place in the year declared by the Holy Father to be the Year of Faith. It was precisely because of Blessed Pedro’s defense of his faith that he was martyred.
Pedro Calungsod suffered martyrdom “in odium Fidei” (“in” or “because of” “hatred of the faith”) as a result of religious persecution. What is the message of this saint to the citizens of the Philippines? What can we learn from it?
Arrastia-Tuason: The Church, by raising to the altars Blessed Pedro, proposes his example to us: that it is worthwhile to live the faith to its fullest, to the point of giving one’s life, if need be.
To a great number of us, God may not ask us to give up our lives as martyrs, as Blessed Pedro did. This does not mean, however, that we are called to a lesser degree of sanctity. God asks each one of us to become witnesses of the faith: lived with courage, with boldness, even to the point of heroism in the ordinary events of our daily life — there, where He has placed us; with our family and friends, in our work place, in joy and in suffering, in abundance and in want.
The example of Blessed Pedro is valid for all of us and for the Church of all times. Some 500 years ago, Divine Providence willed for the faith to be sown and to grow in the Philippines. It is only right that we share this gift of the faith with the rest of the world.
Being a missionary does not choose any age. Blessed Pedro started his mission as a catechist at about age 14, when he went to the Marianas Islands in the Pacific as Blessed Diego’s faithful companion. Blessed Pedro serves as a fine and shining example for the Filipino youth. The young Filipino will have to discern God’s will for him and pursue it.
The passion of the young must be harnessed towards promoting the spread of the Gospel at home and abroad. This can only take place when the faith is firmly rooted and is lived coherently, starting at an early age, learned and encouraged in the refuge and warmth of the family.
The Philippines is one of the predominantly Catholic countries in Asia with a small Muslim minority. As a reaction to the anti-Islam film in mid-September, about 3,000 protesters from the Muslim minority burned American and Israeli flags in the southern city of Marawi. What are relations like between the two religions? Is there a dialogue or common initiatives?
Arrastia-Tuason: The Philippine Supreme Court prohibited the showing of the anti-Islam film which was offensive to our Muslim brothers.
Important religious holidays — both Christian and Muslim — are celebrated in the Philippines.
On the grassroots level, the Muslims and Christians live together in harmony. They work together to create a single community with respect for each other’s religion and culture. Conscious efforts to understand history and the effects of colonization are aimed to create a culture of peace that will provide a bright future for everyone.
The religious play a big role in getting the people together through education and social action projects. A good example is in Davao, where some Muslim and Christian mothers set up a day care center together for both Muslim and Christian children.
In a recent statement the bishops of the Philippines called for action against human trafficking. Is there cooperation between the government and the Church to combat this increasing phenomenon? What measures are being taken?
Arrastia-Tuason: Human trafficking is caused by economic and social problems with the criminal elements feeding on these.
The government is presently trying to address the problem through poverty reduction programs, which include education, job creation and improved social services; also enforcing stricter screening measures and immigration control.
The Church and non-governmental organizations together with the government look deeply into the problem as a violation of human dignity and a disintegration of values.
Each sector has set up its own livelihood programs and self-help projects. Shelters providing victims with psychological and emotional help have been set up. Pastoral work is vital in the successful inculcation of the importance of values in the pursuit of livelihood.
The government has formed multi-sector alliances to combat the problem and work towards the development of long-term solutions.
What is your impression of Pope Benedict XVI?
Arrastia-Tuason: A lot has been said about Pope Benedict XVI since the day he was elected Pope. We know too that most of the opinions describing him as unyielding and rigid have changed.
When I presented my credentials three years ago, my six children and some of their spouses came, together with nine grandchildren (I have 28 all together) and had a chance to kiss his ring.
The younger children had an impression that he was stern and unapproachable, hence, did not know how they should conduct themselves in front of him. When the Holy Father came out and moved towards each one individually, he looked at them in the eye with such gentleness and kindness, their guard dropped. We may have been 22 in that room, but the feeling of each one when the Holy Father approached was that they were alone with him.
We see in him a humble and loyal servant of the vineyard of the Lord, as he described himself on the day of his election. We are amazed at his capacity to serve the Church and all that this entails. It is humanly impossible to do what he does. Most definitely, the Holy Spirit is in him. This is because he allows this same Spirit to guide him and guide the Church through him.
An example is his declaration of this year as the Year of Faith, which is a true grace and gift from God to his children. Only God can inspire this. And the Holy Father seconded the will of God with fervor.
We see him as a father who knows how to listen to his children, capable of seeing through their hearts and making these hearts long for God’s love.
I make it my duty to pray always for his person, for his intentions and for his collaborators. He has on his shoulders the sweet weight of the whole Church. We should not and cannot leave him alone.
What were the most important assignments in your career?
Arrastia-Tuason: This is my first post as ambassador and when it was offered to me, I accepted with enthusiasm and dedicated commitment. It is a great honor and privilege to be my country’s envoy to the Holy See.
In your dealings with Vatican officials, have you ever felt any disadvantage in being a woman?
Arrastia-Tuason: Certainly not. One must remember that the Holy See established the basis for the present-day diplomatic practice and thus my dealings with the officials have been characterized with professional collaboration, mutual courtesy and respect.
It was a very heartwarming experience for me when I received the Dame Grand Cross Award in recognition of my role in strengthening the bilateral relations between the Philippines and the Holy See.